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10 July 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Take a Post writer to lunch

Synopsis: Invite George Lardner over for lunch. You can charge him as much as you want.

Deposition Shows Gore in a Less Than Flattering Light
George Lardner, The Washington Post, 7/8/00

We don't normally suggest that you write to the scribes, but today we make a rare exception. We suggest that you write to the Post's George Lardner, and invite the man over for lunch. Serve the scribe a middling meal; let him engage in polite badinage. And after he's eaten, charge him $1000. To Lardner, that's a "picayune distinction."

That's right, folks. To many people, it makes a difference whether you're charged for a meal or not. But Lardner has an alternate view, as he outlined in Saturday's Post. Lardner was reviewing the transcript of Gore's April 18 interview with independentcareerprosecutor Robert Conrad. At one point, Lardner wrote this:

LARDNER: To Gore's critics, the deposition reinforces earlier images of Gore seen during the campaign finance controversy—his assertion, following the disclosure that he made fundraising calls from the White House, that there was "no controlling legal authority" to prevent them, or his seemingly picayune distinctions—repeated during the April session [with Conrad]—between events that are "community outreach," "finance-related" or true fundraisers.

In this passage, Lardner describes how the deposition appears "to Gore's critics." But it's perfectly clear, throughout this piece, that Lardner endorses those views. The headline states the article's outlook quite plainly: "Deposition shows Gore in a less than flattering light." No weasel-attributions are found in that head. And few people will doubt, as they read the piece, that Lardner generally agrees with Gore's critics.

Which, we think, is why you ought to have Lardner for lunch. What is the "picayune distinction" involved in Gore's remarks on the Hsi Lai temple event? Here it is: Attendees weren't charged for the luncheon. The Hsi Lai luncheon wasn't a "fund-raiser" because no funds were supposed to be raised there. It wasn't a "$2500-a-plate luncheon." It wasn't a "$1000-a-plate luncheon." The event was a $0-a-plate luncheon. To most people, that's a huge distinction. But to Lardner, it's just "picayune." Invite this Post writer to lunch!

For the record, Lardner's piece doesn't start with money; it's memory that first floods his mind. And in this area, Lardner again reveals an odd view of life-on-the-planet. The article begins with Gore being grilled by that group of independentcareerprosecutors:

LARDNER (paragraph 1): When prosecutors asked Vice President Gore about a fundraising breakfast for Asian Americans at the Hay-Adams Hotel here in February 1996, Gore had to resort to an old briefing paper before he could remember that the guests included an old friend, Democratic fundraiser Maria Hsia.

"What is your recollection of any conversation you had with Ms. Maria Hsia at that event?" Gore was asked.

"I have none," the vice president said.

"Do you recall being seated at her table?"

"No, I don't," Gore said, "but I would have been glad to see her and would have said, 'Hello, how are you?' But I don't have any specific recollection of it."

In fact, as photos show, Hsia, who was recently convicted of illegally raising $25,000 for the Democratic National Committee at the breakfast, was seated right next to Gore. To his left was another since-admitted fundraising felon, Pauline Kanchanalak. Directly opposite the vice president at the breakfast table was a third future felon, Charlie Trie.

"That was not the only topic on which Gore's memory failed him," Lardner says, going on to quote the RNC's Clifford May, who turns out to be one of Gore's critics. "Gore claimed he couldn't remember more than 80 times," May laments. "I don't think anyone believes that Al Gore has that faulty a memory."

Is it really strange that Gore couldn't remember the seating chart from a breakfast held more than four years before? As "Gore's critics" have pointed out again and again, Gore (like other major pols, we would add) attends hundreds of fund-raising functions. Are pols supposed to have photographic recall of every insignificant event they attend? It's a notion that comes straight from Neptune. But, over the course of the Clinton scandal decade, hambone writers have happily typed the number of times people say "I don't recall"—meaningless figures that independentcareerprosecutors have occasionally rushed to their notice.

Think back, dear reader, to your work situation, in February 1996. Imagine a time when you may have gone to a routine event with associates. Do you remember who sat beside you, or opposite you, or two chairs down on the left? Of course you don't, and there's a very good reason: You don't recall because you live on this planet! Earth-dwellers don't have total recall! Future generations will simply laugh at the work of our current celebrity press corps. Mark our words: Future generations will look at this writing and marvel at our primitive discourse. In today's world, we shake our heads at reports of medieval surgeons applying leeches to cure patients' headaches. But this is surely how future generations will view the strange work of our press.

But for today, friends, the doctor is IN. We're fairly sure you know what to do. To Lardner, charging for meals is a "picayune distinction." Invite this Post writer to lunch!

Starting tomorrow: James Fallows on Gore

Final point: In this article, Lardner became approximately the three millionth recent scribe to discuss the Hsi Lai event without mentioning a salient fact—guests weren't charged to attend it. (In the weeks before the event, John Huang solicited checks from fifteen attendees. No one else paid to attend.) It's simply impossible to judge the things Gore has said without including this salient point. But we defy you to find a scribe who has cited it. Every journalist has understood well—this key fact would undermine a treasured story. In our reading, not one pundit—not even by mistake—ever slipped up and mentioned this fact.


The Daily update (7/10/00)

More news of life on the planet: Marjorie Williams reeled in a live one, as revealed in this Saturday's Post. The following letter was published:

All I can say after reading Marjorie Williams' column "Mr. Gore's Life of Compromise" is that poor old Al is just a victim of circumstances.

It's not his fault. Life is just so gosh-darned busy and confusing. And anyway, you don't really mean all that you say to people about their being your friends and all.

And besides, as Al puts it, "it all depends on how you define a fundraiser."

Yeah, sure.

[Name of writer]

For the record, the "quote" in this letter is not a real quote. Using touched-up "quotes" to improve treasured tales is now an accepted press practice.

But we were struck by the highlighted passage. As you may recall, Williams was stunned by something she learned from reading the Gore deposition (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/00). Listen up, everybody: Pols sometimes call people "friends" in thank-you notes, even when they're not close personal friends! We'd have thought that no one but Marjorie Williams could possibly be surprised by this news. But it really is true—there's someone for everyone. The Post's lettrist was suitably astonished.

As you know, we hate to criticize. But let's review a few of the things that have recently surprised Post writers:

  1. They're surprised that people can't recall details of meaningless events from four years before.
  2. They're surprised that people distinguish free events from events which cost lots of money.
  3. They're surprised that pols sometimes call people "friends" when they aren't close, lifelong friends.

We repeat: Future generations will simply laugh at writing like this. We'll be viewed as a race of strange primitives. But for today, the doctors are IN, and day after day, they're applying the leeches. Compliantly, dumbly, we submit to their treatment. Sadly, it's our discourse which suffers.

Letter to the editor
"Free For All," The Washington Post, 7/8/00